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American Stories: In a year of unusual national challenges, some local perspectives on America

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“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults,” the French historian and diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville observed. Published in 1835, his “Democracy in America” attempted to explain to Europeans what made America, with its emphasis on equality and individualism, so unusual.

In 2020, the question is still relevant. With the Fourth of July in mind, Climate opened pages of the July magazine for local contributors to answer: What about America is special to you? Is it the Bill of Rights? Baseball? Or Netflix? Granted, viewing the nation through red-, white- and blue-colored glasses isn’t easy in this rollercoaster year: a soaring economy, then a pandemic and then a national crisis over racial division. Nonetheless, we gave our contributors carte blanche in their choice of topics – and asked them to have at it.

We will be publishing our contributors American Stories now through the 4th of July. Keep an eye out for these unique and personal pieces.

Caltrain sees ridership bump as COVID-19 lockdown eases

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Caltrain advises community about electrification work in Redwood City

Caltrain’s ridership has reached 3,200 riders per day, more than double its lowest point of 1,500 riders per day during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place period, as public health officials ease restrictions, according to the transit agency. Before the pandemic, Caltrain’s weekday average was 65,000 passengers.

After reducing service down to 42 trains per weekday at the onset of the shelter-in-place order, the transit agency recently increased the frequency to 70 trains per weekday while launching a “skip-stop” system to avoid crowding.

In a statement today, Caltrain said it is “continuing to monitor ridership to ensure that enough capacity exists to allow riders to maintain a healthy distance from each other.”

The transit agency said it has also significantly stepped up cleaning and sanitizing of trains and stations.

“At this time, no employees that work on board or in a maintenance capacity have been infected with COVID-19,” the agency said.

CVS Health launches COVID-19 testing site at San Mateo store

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CVS Health has added a San Mateo store to its growing list of locations providing free drive-thru COVID-19 testing.

The CVS Pharmacy at  124 De Anza Blvd. in the Crystal Springs Village shopping center is the first testing site launched by CVS Health in San Mateo County. Since May, CVS Health has opened over 1,400 testing sites nationwide to help expand testing capacity.

To schedule an appointment, patients must register in advance at CVS.com. Testing will not take place inside any retail locations.

A complete list of CVS Pharmacy drive-thru test sites can be found here.

Photo credit: CVS Health

Two new ‘slow streets’ added in Redwood City

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Redwood City added two streets to its Slow Streets Pilot Program due to community feedback and input, according to the city.

“Sections of Bain and Crompton are now Slow Streets Neighborhoods,” the city said.

Slow Streets is a temporary pilot program using signage to discourage vehicular traffic on certain streets during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place period. The program aims to provide safe open spaces for residents to be physically active within their own neighborhood while social distancing. The program also maintains vehicular access to homes and businesses and for emergency and delivery services.

About 3 percent of city streets are currently Slow Streets.

For more information on the program, or to learn how to request a street, provide feedback and to volunteer by keeping an eye on teh signage and barricades placed, click here.

Redwood City police: 265 fireworks complaints in 2 weeks

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Man injured in Redwood City stabbing

Redwood City police are redirecting some of their resources to respond to ample fireworks complaints in the city.

In the last two weeks, the Redwood City Police Department said it has received over 265 complaints about fireworks, the majority of which occurred between the hours of 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. That’s a busy time for police officers, who in the last two weeks responded to about 2,300 other calls for service during the same time period in Redwood City, according to the Police Department.

“We are going to try and redirect some resources to address the issue,” police said, adding, “But please keep in mind that fireworks enforcement can be particularly challenging.”

Amid the coronavirus lockdown that has canceled sanctioned fireworks shows, complaints over illegal fireworks use are soaring in cities across the nation.

Fireworks are illegal in Redwood City and those caught using them face up to $50,000 in fines and jail time. They risk injury, wildfires and can be traumatic for pets and people with post trauma conditions, officials say. Last year, Redwood City’s council adopted a social host ordinance to hold anyone who hosts or organizes a gathering where fireworks are used accountable. In 2018, the city also increased fines associated with illegal fireworks use to over $500 for the first violation, $750 for the second violation and $1,000 to the third violation. That doesn’t include possible penalties from the state that can range from $500 to $50,000.

Redwood City police ask residents to call its non-emergency number (650-780-7118) to report incidents and to provide specific addresses or identifying information to assist responding officers.

Hunger strike at Redwood City jail over inflated commissary prices

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The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office said Thursday it will reduce inflated prices of commissary items at Maguire Correctional Facility in Redwood City after inmates began a hunger strike.

The inmates reportedly began a hunger strike on May 16 to protest comparatively higher prices for commissary items, lack of free phone calls during the pandemic, and technical difficulties with the new remote video visitation system. Inmate Rodrigo Prieto filed a Change.org petition stating inmates and their families are economically struggling during the pandemic and should not have to pay inflated prices. His letter points out prices for the same items are lower in San Francisco County’s jail system.

“We find ourselves in a constant battle with administration over outrages (sp) commissary prices that go way above market value,” Prieto said in a note to jail officials. “We have filed numerous complaints about these said prices.”

The sheriff’s office said it has discovered that its commissary vendor, Keefe Supply Company, has indeed been charging higher prices at San Mateo County jails than other jails.

“We have worked with our vendor and have agreed to lower the prices to match those of the other jails,” the sheriff’s office said, adding that all revenue from commissary is used for inmate programs and commissary personnel.

It doesn’t appear free phone calls are on the table, per the sheriff’s office statement. The sheriff’s office contracts for inmate phone services at a rate of 4.5 cents a minute, with a half-hour call costing an inmate or their family $1.35.

The office also said it’s also trying to resolve technical issues with its new remote video system, established at the onset of the pandemic. Every inmate is receiving two 30-minute visitation sessions per week free of charge, the sheriff’s office said.

Redwood City RV parking program gets council support

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A Safe RV Parking Program aiming to respond to an increase in people living in recreational vehicles on Redwood City streets received unanimous support by council Monday.

Council directed city staff to move forward with the $650,000-per-year program that will prohibit overnight RV parking on city streets with the exception of RV residents who are issued city permits, and will also establish an off-site parking facility for up to 30 RVs at a county property located at 1402 Maple St., near the Maple Street jail, the city said. The program includes a 2-year effort to connect all participating RV residents to permanent housing. The local nonprofit LifeMoves is expected provide caseworkers to operate the off-site facility and support all program participants.

City staff aims to introduce the parking ordinance amendments and the Safe RV Parking Program at the council meeting on July 27. Implementation of the program is slated to occur in late August or September.

The on-street parking permits will allow RVs to continue to park within city limits for 72 hours but with restrictions, such as no property stored outside their vehicles, no dumping of wastewater and no staying in one location for an extended period of time, according to the city.

The city is negotiating with the county over the off-street facility at 1402 Maple St. The facility will include portable toilets, garbage disposal, wastewater disposal voucher availability and a security attendant. Families with children, seniors, individuals with disabilities and veterans will be prioritized to reside there, the city said.

The program is a response to an explosion of RV residency on city streets. Over the last few years, due in large part to the affordable housing crisis, the number of people living in RVs countywide increased by 44 percent in 2017, by 46 percent in 2018 and by 127 percent in 2019, according to the San Mateo County One Day Homeless Count conducted annually in January.

In 2018, Redwood City municipal code was amended to no longer restrict RVs from overnight parking. Limited restrictions have made the city a magnet for RV residency on city streets, according to city staff. On May 13 of this year, a survey in Redwood City counted 102 RVs used for housing within the city. Hotspots have included the 200 block of Cedar Street, Douglas Court, Maple Street, Oddstad Drive, Shasta Street, Stafford Street and Walnut Street.

Local businesses say the increase in RVs degrades business districts and impacts their revenue. A number of residents who spoke during public comment at Monday’s meeting, however, believed the Safe RV Parking Program penalizes RV residents.

Councilmembers Giselle Hale and Diana Reddy were part of an ad-hoc committee that worked for months on the Safe RV Parking Plan. Building upon research already developed by the Housing and Human Concerns Committee (HHCC), the ad-hoc committee gathered data,  studied up on best practices in other cities and met with neighbors, business owners and RV residents.

“The longterm goal has always been to reduce the number of RVs on the street and to identify permanent housing solutions for the city’s RV residents,” Hale said. With working residents forced to live in vehicles due to the high cost of housing, the city must continue to work to increase affordable options in the city, Hale added.

As part of the plans, the city intends to establish a two-hour parking limitation for all vehicles on Oddstad Street between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.

‘Grab and go’ food offered to all County kids during summer

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This summer, Second Harvest will provide food assistance for all San Mateo County children 18 and under at multiple locations throughout the county.

Meals will be “grab and go” style to ensure proper social distancing. For a list of locations and hours of service, text 876-876 or visit here.

With schools closed for the summer, food assistance is crucial for families relying on school-provided meals, and food security is on the rise due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For additional food assistance services available in San Mateo County, visit here.

San Carlos weekend bike loop plan begins Saturday

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San Carlos is set to launch its weekend-only bike loop plan on Saturday that aims to promote exercise while providing an alternative means to travel downtown.

The bike loop will run along streets including Cherry, Elm, St. Francis, and Cedar with intermediate connections to Arroyo, Brittan, and Howard, according to the city. The loops will connect to downtown, where the 600 and 700 blocks of Laurel Street are now temporarily closed to vehicular traffic to allow for extended outdoor dining and shopping.

While streets in the bike loop will continue to be open to vehicular traffic, street signage and changeable message boards situated along the route will notify community of the Bike Loop’s availability and advise motorists to share the road, the city said.

The bike loops will continue every Saturday and Sunday through the end of December. Additional bike racks will be available downtown.

Class of 2020: All dressed up in caps and gowns, no place to go

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For the Class of 2020, it’s celebration without “the sizzle”.

The prom. The awards dinners. The senior trip, the yearbook-signing, and the cherry on top, a star turn picking up a diploma at commencement. This is the time of year when tradition rolls out red-carpet moments and lifelong memories for graduates—a rug, sadly, that was yanked out from under them in March. All over America, from middle-schoolers moving up, to high school and college students ready to move on, Covid-19 wronged the Class of 2020 of a normal rite of passage.

That left everyone from the students and their parents to their teachers and school administrators doing their best to turn lemons into lemonade. Education went online. So did maintaining connections with friends. Likewise, graduation ceremonies this year are digital productions assembled from prerecorded speeches and hundreds of selfies of graduates at home in their caps and gowns, all dressed up with no place to go.

“In a lot of ways,” says Sequoia High School Principal Sean Priest of the June 5 cyber-ceremony, “it’s the same general format as a live in-person graduation, you just don’t have the crowd and the sunshine and the football field and the band and all that stuff.” There’s nothing inherently fun about distributing caps and gowns, he adds, and “what makes it cool is all the pomp and circumstance.”

The circumstance behind the de-pomped graduations arrived via a delayed-action fuse, as restrictions ordered by San Mateo County Health Officer Dr. Scott Morrow deepened. Schools initially were to close from March 16 to April 3, but the whole semester imploded with the extended shelter-in-place order. The Friday the 13th when students and school officials went home, they didn’t know they were saying goodbye.

This story was originally published in the June edition of Climate Magazine. To view the magazine online, click on this link.

“There’s a genuine relationship that students and staff form over the course of four years together,” Priest continues. “And the end of the year there are so many different activities that provide an opportunity for both the students and the staff to have closure to that relationship.” Everyone is always excited to see the graduates move on, he adds, but “there’s a lot, I think, of trauma and mourning about these relationships being severed really unexpectedly and instantaneously.”

Virtual Graduations

Andres Raddavero, 18, is a Carlmont High School senior who is a student trustee to the Sequoia Union High School District Board. “It hurt a bit at first because that last day, we thought we’d be back in three weeks from then,” he says. Many of his classmates have been together since elementary school, he notes. “We’re going to have a virtual graduation. It’s better than nothing but it’s not what we were expecting a couple of months ago.”

Before school ended, Tara DuBridge, 18, did track and was on the basketball team at Summit Preparatory Charter High School, as well as serving as a volunteer mentor to 11th graders in a cultural exchange program. “I can’t participate in most of the things that I really enjoy doing as a high school student,” says the Belmont resident, who has to content herself with practicing the clarinet and oboe at home. “So having it kind of taken away so quickly, it was shocking really.”

Students like Sequoia High’s Student Body Vice President Anika Huisman, 17, try to put their disappointment in perspective.

“I’ve been like trying to really get myself to think about the big picture rather than the few events that we’ve been missing,” she says. “… I know it’s important to stay inside and to stay apart from everybody. But I think we’ve all worked really hard for these moments and we’ve kind of used them to motivate us to keep going. So just like knowing that, it just feels like all the hard work that we put in doesn’t really count for anything.”

Woodside High School senior Jack Cruzan, 18, of Redwood City has tried to focus on activities he enjoys including skateboarding, working on his car and playing video games, rather than on not being able to “walk up and get a diploma and shake hands … I can’t really change that. There’s not really a big point in dwelling on that. It is what it is.”

Since normal school life went into suspension, administrators, teachers —and parents—have tried to do what they can to adapt to remote learning, keep up morale and provide year-end alternatives to make 2020 memorable, in a different way.

Adrian Dilley, who teaches tennis, weight-training, track and field and other sports to ninth graders at Sequoia, found technology “tough to say the least” in teaching PE. Kids were given suggested workouts with fitness logs to track their activity and submit reports weekly. YouTube was useful in teaching golf history and technique, but both teachers and students missed the face-to-face interaction.

“It’s our routine,” Dilley says. “When people are out of their routines, motivation, interest and communication declines. It’s just not the same.”

Academic and sports awards nights were all canceled, along with assemblies and graduation night trips. “It’s all gone,” says Sequoia district trustee Georgia Jack. “It’s really sad because April and May are huge both on high school and college campuses, the spring events that bring the community together.”

A Windows Tradition Broken

Woodside High graduates didn’t get to write their names and future plans on windows overlooking the quad, as is the tradition, so an Instagram website was created, according to Zorina Matavulj, the school’s college and career advisor. She and other staff were printing and assembling 200 to 300 certificates in May to mail to students for a “virtual” awards ceremony.

Kids won’t get to sign each other’s yearbooks. Woodside’s won’t arrive until September and will be mailed, Matavulj says, though Sequoia High principal Priest hopes to be able to distribute the 2020 book the week after graduation, along with diplomas.

Drive-up Distribution

Caps and gowns were given out to 400-plus graduates at the two schools in early May. At Sequoia, a team of staff and parents led by Linda Burt tried to juice up the distribution with balloons, signs and music, cheering on the students driving up in their cars. Sequoia’s Alumni Association slipped a flyer into each graduation packet with a lifetime membership offer at no charge. It would have cost $20.20, according to association secretary Nancy Oliver. “We decided this year that the seniors have missed out on so many things, and we feel really bad for them.”

Says Priest: “It’s not the steak, it’s the sizzle. We’re trying to find the sizzle in these activities. They’re in a different format but I think we can still make them special.”

Fifty-three students in Taylor White’s advanced dance class at Sequoia had spent months choreographing and rehearsing routines for the 51st annual show, only to see the campus close before she had a chance to at least record it. Tradition calls for presenting each senior with a rose bouquet at the end of the performance.

Taylor decided the show must go virtual. “Pop your parents down in a chair in front of you when you’re on stage,” she instructed the students, “turn your camera on and when you go off stage, just turn it off.” The “stages” were living rooms, garages and yards, but thanks to Zoom technology, the dancers not only got to perform, the show will live on video. Digital and Performing Arts Boosters and parents made sure the 30 seniors got their roses, home-delivered. In a post-event chat, one senior thanked Taylor for creating memories: “Even though they’re different, we’re still going to cherish them very much.”

Transitions Stalled

Though businesses and activities in the county are emerging from life on hold, for the Class of 2020, moving on to a next stage presents unique dilemmas. Starting with the graduation party.

Monica Cryan isn’t sure how to celebrate son Jack’s graduation. “I don’t think any of his friends’ parents will let any of them do anything because it’s like taboo right now to socially congregate,” she says. Jack has been able to get out of the house to tinker on his car and work part-time at Trader Joe’s. “He’ll go to work extra hours because it’s the only place he’s allowed to go without getting his hand slapped,” his mother says.

She feels badly because 18 should be a time of transition to independence, but Jack, who has been accepted at UC Santa Cruz, may be stuck at home if classes aren’t in person. His senior trip to Europe this summer got cancelled as well. “It’s like they have nothing right now to really look forward to,” is his mother’s regretful summation.

Raddavero, the Carlmont senior, speculates that his family will do what they did for Mother’s Day—visit his grandparents at their home in Palo Alto, gathered on the patio, talking to them on the phone. “We hang outside,” he explains. “They hang out inside. We eat on the outdoor table.”

Matavulj says some of the kids she counseled at Woodside who were undecided between a two- and a four-year college will now opt for community college. A few say they are going to take a year off. But with a crashed job market and travel prospects sketchy, “it’s almost like they are more nervous about that because that’s more unknown even than college.”

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